Helping others, providing equal education opportunities to all, knowing that you are making a difference are just some of the benefits of becoming a special education teacher, and like nursing or a life of religious contemplation, some would say it’s a true vocation.
In all truth, nor is it for the weak of heart. No one likely goes into teaching because they expect to make millions; education is about mentoring and helping development. Teachers shape minds and worldviews, teaching students how to think critically, harder than they possibly ever have before and giving them the skills they will build on over a lifetime to achieve personal and professional success. This couldn’t be any truer than for people who choose to follow the path toward special education. But as with any competitive, specialized professional career, it takes a great deal of time, effort and patience to reach the destination.
First Thing’s First
Before you trod down the difficult path of special education, consider whether or not you are ready for the task at hand. Ask yourself these questions: Do I have endless patience? Am I truly committed to helping children with disabilities? Am I willing and able to teach life skills, such as taking turns and sharing, raising his/her hand before speaking in class, not interrupting, putting things away, etc.? Am I able to handle the stress? Are my interpersonal skills top-notch? Can I handle important and oftentimes involved paperwork on top of my teaching duties?
You should have answered yes to all these questions, and it would behoove you to further investigate the career before committing to the education necessary (your best bet would be to find a special education teacher who has had years of experience and will offer you frank insight into what the job is like). There is also plenty of literature in book and magazines, as well as sources on the internet for finding out more about special education teaching.
There are two things every teacher in general requires in order to be hired by a public school district: teaching certification in the appropriate state (the qualifications will vary from state to state) and status as a “highly qualified” teacher in the subjects in which you wish to instruct. Certification requires a four-year special needs or special education degree, or in some cases, a four-year degree in another subject and a master’s degree in special education. If you are one of those who have a degree and it is not in education, but you wish to teach, you might be granted temporary certification that allows you to teach while pursuing your certification in special education.
One important bit of advice you should heed is to take as many reading and math elective courses as you can, since your special needs students will most likely be integrated into regular classrooms for those subjects. Reading instruction courses would also come in handy if you plan on teaching at the elementary-level. Prepare yourself as best you can for the oncoming challenge where you must try to understand the difficulties your students face in learning and figure out solutions for solving those issues.
Once you have completed your four-year undergraduate coursework or master’s degree, you may have to register for exams that go toward your certification, depending on what state you live in. Also, be aware of the fact that there are online teacher certification programs for your convenience. The next step is to fill out the application and paperwork for teacher certification. Know that you may apply for teaching positions, and your prospective employers will consider that you are awaiting certification. Certificates may also need to be renewed every few years.
Surviving the First Year
Starting any job is tough, starting a teaching job is especially challenging and starting a special education teaching career might seem like one of the most overwhelming tasks you’ve ever undertaken. After all your hard work and diligence, you have finally arrived, you’re ready to start making a difference in kids’ lives, but life has a way of never going quite as you plan.
Stay calm! Teaching can be a bit like parenting, in that you learn from experience and you learn as you go, and that’s okay. Some days will be a lot tougher than others; some days you might feel as though you’ve failed. You haven’t. Don’t stress the little things that can’t be helped, network or find a support group either in your building or online and stay flexible in your approach.
Lisette Rampling is a contributing writer who has taught special education for over five years. She is currently pursuing her Ed.D. and hopes to move into education administration with the goal of influencing special education policy.
This was a guest post for TheEmployable